On the Skip Gates Controversy

Count me among those who spend the better part of each day trying to avoid conversations like these.

Why? Well, because discussions involving race are extraordinarily difficult to have. To the degree to which they’re open, honest, and direct, they hurt people.

For some, their worst nightmare is that they’ll be regarded as racist for something they’ve said or done. For others, it’s the sinking feeling that, once again, indignity and injustice is being overlooked, justified, or even supported.

In order to avoid such risks, conversations on race typically try (sometimes very hard) to “play it safe.” This, however, invariably disappoints, as it does little more than recite platitudes which to little to advance understanding.

Invariably, people who take race seriously leave discussions like these feeling important dimensions of the topic are left out, ignored, or just not addressed. Another chance to get somebody to see what’s eating you – what’s not to easy to say or point to – and another chance lost.

Life is nothing, it seems, if not a constant series of reminders that there’s another side to existence besides the warm and rosy. Things that happen that infuriate, perplex, and, left unaddressed, have the potential to crystallize into a prison of hatred or despair.

Most of you are familiar with the broad details of the controversy. Just over a week ago, Skip Gates, professor and head of African American studies at Harvard, was arrested at his home after trying to break into it with the help of another African American who happened to be his driver.

Not surprisingly, accounts of the incident differ wildly among the participants. The arresting officer has one account, Skip has another.

What doesn’t seem to be in dispute is that Gates is an old man who walks with the assistance of a cane. It also appears to be the case that at some time during the encounter Gates produced evidence that he was the owner of the home.

What may be more contestable (but not controversial, from my point of view) is the notion that the police officer is the one in charge of the situation, and that this power differential confers upon her (or him) numerous advantages as well as enormous responsibilities.

My question is this: was there really and truly no chance at all for the presiding officer, with all his training and experience, to de-escalate the situation? Even in the case of someone belligerent prior to the officers’ arrival, was there no way at all to turn the heat down? Or did egos really have to clash in such a schoolyard manner?

I think the President was right, last night, to call the actions of the police officer stupid. Not the officer, the actions; if a man owns a home, he shouldn’t end up being arrested for trying to break into it, even if he wants to be.

The President was equally righ this afternoon, in my view, to question on what basis an elderly gentleman needs to be led away from his home in handcuffs.

On right-wing talk radio the next day, the arresting officer repeatedly referred to Gates’ “belligerence” in justifying the arrest. He went on to scold Gates, saying he didn’t expect such behavior from someone “of his caliber.”

This raises the issue of what Skip’s crime was. Raising your voice to a police officer? Asking for a name and a badge?

Protesting a perceived injustice? Irritating an impatient police officer?

Being an uppity brown person who doesn’t know his place?

Doing any or all of these things on your property, or inside your own home?

It’s not the cop’s job to retaliate for a perceived insult, it’s her job to insure the public safety. And is the interest of public safety really advanced by humiliating a black man before his neighbors and community? There’s no way we can ever know this with certainty, but could some portion of the intent have been to send a message to dissuade other people of color from talking back to edgy police officers?

I read with amusement the articles supporting the officer in the local paper. One details how he tried to save the life of a noted African American basketball player by administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Another is a statement from the attorney representing his union, saying the President “will come to regret his remarks.”

More schoolyard taunts, except this time threatening the President of the United States. This gentleman is sure to be a hero now, among his fellow birthers and tea partiers. Look for him to be the next darling of the GOP talk circuit.

And while I support the President in his remarks, I do think it would have been better if he’d given some attention to the challenges police officers of all races face on a daily basis. If they’re not always the nicest people in the world, or don’t always have the best manners, I think we can understand some of that as the result of serving on the front lines of a war.

All the more reason, in my view, for officers to receive more and better training in race relations.

This leads me to my closing thought: I wonder how often things like this would happen if we, as a nation, took the history of race relations in this country seriously enough to teach it to every child.

As seriously as, let’s say, the ability to add, subtract, or divide.


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